In the Studio with Erin of Berbo Studio

Working with Erin Berkowitz of Berbo Studio to collaborate on two limited-edition Circle Tees has been an inspiring and educational experience. As a California Naturalist, her care for and knowledge of our state’s ecology is incredible. As a writer, artist, and educator, she weaves creativity into everything she does while teaching others how to deepen their relationship with nature.

In the Studio with Erin of Berbo Studio In the Studio with Erin of Berbo Studio In the Studio with Erin of Berbo Studio

It’s cool that your natural dye practice goes beyond just “dyeing.” You are a certified California Naturalist, lead plant identification walks, and honor all aspects connected to dyeing things with plants. 

Yes! I’m always hoping to highlight our interconnection with the natural world with all aspects of my natural dye practice. California is one of the most biodiverse places on earth, so learning and teaching about plants, ecology, and ethnobotany–the historical and ongoing relationships between people and plants–is a never-ending and deeply inspiring journey. People have been working with plants to create dye since… forever! It’s just within the last couple hundred years that many of our collective cultural memories have (temporarily) forgotten this connective and creative practice. Rekindling it can be a meaningful way of relating to the land where we live.

What was your journey like? Did you become a naturalist first and then get into dyeing with plants? Or the other way around?

I (unofficially) became a naturalist first by persistently wondering, “What plant is that?” on my hikes around the San Gabriel, Santa Monica, and Verdugo Mountains near LA. Over the last decade, I’ve built a knowledge of my local ecology by continuing to ask that question! I got certified officially through the UC California Naturalist program a few years ago.

In the Studio with Erin of Berbo Studio In the Studio with Erin of Berbo Studio In the Studio with Erin of Berbo Studio In the Studio with Erin of Berbo Studio

My art practice has always revolved around storytelling, particularly telling “stories” inspired or communicated by natural phenomena. As I learned about native and local plants, I dug into the ways people have been working with them creatively–Indigenous Californians have rich basket-making traditions, which often include natural dyeing–and it became a clear fit to start incorporating natural dyes into my creative process.

How long have you been dyeing with plants?

I took my first natural dye class, revolving around indigo dyeing, about ten years ago, but started expanding my practice around working and experimenting with local plant dyes about five years ago.

‘Intentional’ is a great way to describe your practice. What does a typical workday look like for you?

Often I’ll start my day with a hike or walk, typically near my local river, the Arroyo Seco, where I’ll keep an eye out for certain plant material for dyeing: fallen oak galls, blooming non-native Spanish broom, plentiful stands of thriving sagebrush or laurel sumac. If the second half of my day allows, I might experiment with creating dye from a new-to-me plant I’ve collected or I’ll process any familiar gathered plant material to add to my stash. The areas where I hike and collect change with the season, or if I’m working on a particular project with a specific desired plant or dye color.

In the Studio with Erin of Berbo Studio In the Studio with Erin of Berbo Studio In the Studio with Erin of Berbo Studio In the Studio with Erin of Berbo Studio In the Studio with Erin of Berbo Studio

Some days are purely dedicated to dye production; the processes of mordanting–prepping fibers for dye–and brewing dyes can take hours or whole days, which I spend in my backyard studio tending to pots of simmering brews on my outdoor stove. (Pepper in less-exciting admin work and errand-running, and that’s a pretty typical day!)

Alongside being an artist, you are also an educator. I would also call you an advocate for the plant world, especially native California plants, which are so important to wildlife and pollinators.  Do you have any favorite plants? And why? I will tell you mine! I love California Buckwheat, I love it all through the seasons..the soft pinks that turn into burnt rust later in the season.

California buckwheat is awesome, and such an important pollinator plant! I love the maple syrupy scent of the drying blooms.

It’s so hard for me to pick a favorite, but since you mentioned plants important to wildlife, our native oaks came to mind. Oak trees are like whole ecosystems unto themselves, with myriad insects, birds, mammals, and other wildlife depending on them for food, shelter, and other essential resources. Hang out under or near an oak for a few quiet minutes, and you’ll witness a whole thriving and varied world come to life! There are a couple of enormous, ancient valley oaks (Quercus lobata) I like to visit in the Santa Monica Mountains–they happen to produce my favorite oak galls for dyeing. Many of our native oaks tend to hybridize with one another, so identifying them can also be a fun and funky puzzle if you’re up for the botanical challenge.

Do you have any upcoming summer events or news you’d like to share? 

I host a camping retreat centered around natural dyeing and ecological exploration every solstice and equinox, with the next retreat coming up on the Summer Solstice, June 21-23! We’ll be camping along the beautiful Santa Ynez River near Santa Barbara. That’s right around the corner, so if I miss you, the next retreat will be on the fall equinox, September 20-22 near Mt. Piños. Otherwise, I teach workshops in the LA area 2-3 weekends a month, and you can find out what I have coming up on Instagram or my website.

Thank you so much for your willingness to collaborate with us, we are so excited to see what you create! We have never worked with a natural dyer before, so it’s very cool to collaborate with you!

Thank YOU! It was so much fun dreaming up and experimenting with dye colors for this collaboration. And it’s an honor to share plant dyeing with the All Roads community!

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